Time to Smell the Pumpkin Filled Whoopie Pies

For the past few weeks I’ve been feeling like a chicken with my head cut off and I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it has something to do with the days getting shorter and literally having less time in which to get things done before night falls. That is kind of a scary concept considering that daylight savings (I never know when it is actually considering ‘savings.’ Is it when we ‘spring ahead’ or ‘fall back?’) hasn’t even happened yet and we are soon going to be facing the 5pm darkness of a winter’s day. But I just feel like I’ve been doing a lot of rushing and over-committing. I know my life is less frantic than others, but my high-strung personality makes up for what my schedule lacks. I’d better start adapting or I’m going to have a breakdown or a heart attack by December.
Last weekend my sister and I planned a little Halloween baking with the nieces. Realizing the attention spans of Nieces One (5 ½) and Two (2 ½) would not allow for the required two pronged process inherent to the sandwich-y cookie we’d settled on, I took on the task of getting the various components as close to done as possible. That way ‘putting it together’ would be their contribution and as far as they were concerned they could say they ‘made’ them.

In preparation for their Sunday visit I figured I’d get as much done on Saturday as I could before I had to zoom downtown for an afternoon lecture and then back uptown for an evening movie and dinner. Plenty of time and it should have gone swimmingly—except it didn’t.

My task was to make the chocolate cookies for mini pumpkin whoopie pies. Since I’d made a different recipe in the past I thought I’d go Martha despite the fact that she calls for shortening. That is actually more traditionally whoopie anyway, plus I already had an organic non-hydrogenated version and the required regular (as opposed to Dutch-process) cocoa in the house. I set up shop, doing what I do so I can take photos along the way, ate breakfast, got the cookies in the oven and cleaned up the kitchen. I took the cookies out, changed into running clothes, took a bite of one of the cooled whoopies and almost spit. They were horrible! Metallic and bitter and now what? The clock was ticking and I knew I’d be more upset if I didn’t exercise so I ran out the door committed to figuring out how I’d rectify the catastrophe while I huffed and puffed through the park.

As I ran around the reservoir I thought, “Wait! When you use regular cocoa you have to neutralize the acidity with baking soda. I can’t believe Martha left that out!” And I was filled with righteous indignation. The woman who wrote the Baking Handbook had made such an elementary mistake?! What was the world coming to? And when was I going to find the time to buy more cocoa from a vendor other than the rip-off, clinical depression inducing market around the corner? Returning to my apartment I dramatically threw out all the disgusting cookies, assessed my pantry, confirmed I had no more cocoa, made lunch, ate lunch, and glanced at the recipe again. And I can humbly say it was all my fault; of course Martha had included the baking soda. I’d been so manic I simply didn’t see it.
What ensued was absurd. Interpreting the mishap as an omen I decided instead to make the whoopie pie recipe I’d baked in the past that calls for butter, no shortening, Dutch-process cocoa and buttermilk. My plan was to pick up the ingredients after the lecture, but before the movie, figuring I’d have time to do the cookies when I got home for good around 10pm. So I raced to the Gourmet Garage near the Christopher Street subway station, practically body checking the NYU students smoking on West 3rd Street, and, upon reading the cocoa’s $12.99 label, muttered under my breath, returned it to the shelf and ran to the train.
A 10 minute trip took 20 since track work eliminated express service. When I finally got to my stop I had no choice but to sprint to the clinical-depression inducing market where they had no Dutch-process cocoa at all but did have buttermilk. Ok, home, change clothes, run to theater. Friends not there yet run to Food Emporium across the street where they do have Dutch-process, buy it and smuggle it into the theater in my bag.
After a lovely evening I made it home at 11:15 (later than expected but who cares when you’re having fun with friends?) and, deciding I’d rather stay up late than wake up too early, I finished the cookies at 1AM. The next morning I made the drama-free filling and set up shop for the girls. Everything went smoothly, they were covered in pumpkin and cream cheese (as were mysterious spots in my apartment) and there were no tears. A good time had by all.

When I walked them back to their car Niece One showed me a small pile of gold and red fallen leaves she had stacked next to her car seat, “my leaf collection!” she said sweetly. Looking down at her little hands carefully displaying her autumnal treasures I realized I hadn’t even noticed the leaves beginning to change. What is wrong with me? I ran right through the park the day before obsessing about cocoa and baking soda instead of looking at what was all around me. In that one minute she taught me way more than my cookie fabricating lesson had taught her. On Monday I walked through the park to an appointment on the East Side but by the time I caught myself power-walking and preoccupied I was already across town. It may take more than five fallen leaves to change my ways but I made sure to stroll home slowly and mindfully, stopping to take in the trees and smell the flowers. For my efforts I rewarded myself with a pumpkin filled whoopie pie—I needed a treat to reinforce any new life lesson. Maybe I should have doubled the recipe.

Time to Smell the Pumpkin Filled Whoopie Pies
Cookies adapted from Gourmet, January 2003, filling adapted from The Martha Stewart Show
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2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg

4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup canned solid pack pumpkin
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Whisk together flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt in a bowl until combined. Stir together buttermilk and vanilla in a measuring cup.
Beat together butter and brown sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy (3-5 minutes)then add egg, beating until combined well. Reduce speed to low and alternately mix in flour mixture and buttermilk in batches, beginning and ending with flour, scraping down side of bowl occasionally, and mixing until smooth.
Using 1 tablespoon ice cream scoop or a tablespoon and the assistance of another spoon, drop mounds of batter about 2 inches apart onto 2 parchment paper lined large baking sheets. Bake in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until tops are puffed and cakes spring back when touched, 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer with a metal spatula to a rack to cool completely.

In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip together cream cheese, butter and confectioners' sugar on medium speed until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add pumpkin, cinnamon, and nutmeg;
whip until smooth, scraping down the bowl as necessary.
Spoon about 2 teaspoons filling on the flat sides of half the cookies. Sandwich with remaining cookies.
Yield: 20, 2 1/2-inch sandwich cookie-cakes


Tastes Like Team Spirit Chocolate Pretzels

Sports fans are at their annual crossroads again, the intersection of baseball and football. It’s that time of year when DVRs threaten to overload, team loyalties are tested and I feel totally left out.
It’s no secret that I am devoid of athletic prowess and have no real interest in professional sports. I got over the fact that I will never thrill to the idea of a last minute softball game back in my camp days when I prayed to be put in left field so I could just think my thoughts or inch my way towards the girl in right field before the counselor reprimanded me for gabbing and sent me back to my spot.

But sometimes I think rooting for a home team would be nice. Well, not so much rooting as caring. You have to care to root and I just don’t have that deep seated team spirit that interferes, I mean guides, the social plans of so many who really do care. I’m not proud of the fact that I usually don’t know who is playing in the World Series until the games are well under way and often don’t know the warring champions of the Super Bowl until I tune in to watch the good commercials. What makes all of this even worse is that I have four dear friends who work in sports broadcasting—you’d think I could muster an interest just to be able to support them. But I can’t.
It’s not that I haven’t tried. I went to a baseball game once. It was the Mets, I can’t remember who they were playing but I do remember that I ate a terrible, soggy pretzel and our seats were so bad I was only able to make out what was happening by the very loud body language of the players. I knew one guy had just caught the ball because his arm was up in the air and another guy had just been called out because he stomped his foot. Kind of hard to care when you can barely see the action. But I do appreciate the romance of America’s favorite pastime and have always enjoyed when baseball is used as a backdrop or metaphor in other art forms. I loved The Natural, Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams and Take Me Out was a terrific play. I just don’t want to watch an actual baseball game for three hours.
The other night I was sitting on my couch getting ready to watch the season finale of Mad Men when I heard cheering from a neighboring apartment. I don’t know whether they were watching the Colts vs. the Redskins or the Giants vs. the Phillies (confession—I had to dig through my recycling to look that info up in the paper) but all of a sudden I felt a little lonely steeping myself into the make-believe past of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce instead of embracing the wins and losses of today. There is something really nice about the community of the like-minded and the sporty set seem to really enjoy each other’s company when rallying for their favorite teams. Over the weekend I was talking to a friend whose son had recently left for college, “I have no one to watch sports with at night,” he bemoaned. He looked so sad and I wondered if his son was busy watching the games he used to watch with his dad with his dorm-mates. Then my friend Liza was relaying what a nice time she’d had visiting with her father and watching their beloved Jets, something they’ve been doing together for years. Sunday football? Not at my house.
What’s weird is that I actually like the sounds of a football game playing on TV—the announcers, the whistles, the sound of helmets crashing. I find it kind of comforting and I know why. When I was a little girl I used to wander next door to visit Gert and Jack, an older couple I’ve mentioned before who lived in the neighboring apartment. Jack spent Sunday afternoons watching his Giants on the wood-grained TV console in their burnt orange and green plaid patterned den while Gert was usually doing her weekly baking in the very narrow pink kitchen. Although my place was always by her side, when things got hot (or too close for her comfort) she’d send me carefully carrying a tray of Cokes and a bowl of Mr. Salty pretzel sticks and I’d hang out with Jack on the nubby couch. While he watched the game we’d share the pretzels and I’d get to read the Sunday comics from his New York Post, a treat not found in my parents’ Times reading living room. It was completely cozy and I miss those afternoons to this day.
And now I’m in somewhat of a bind. With Mad Men gone for who knows how long what am I supposed to do on Sunday nights? Ideally wouldn’t it be nice to think I’d finally crack open Anna Karenina? She’s still here, three years later, sitting on my shelf. Somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen. Extreme Makeover Home Edition always makes me cry, I stopped watching Desperate Housewives years ago, and there’s no more Sopranos. Maybe this is the time to watch an entire football game from start to finish—try and figure out what a “down” is, why the announcer just yelled despairingly, “OHHHH!” and why one play is better or worse than another. Oh please, I need to be realistic. I should probably start with something football themed, just to dip my toe in the action before I contemplate the NFL. I’ve got it! Friday Night Lights:The First Season on DVD.
These soft, chewy and chocolate-y pretzels made my soggy Shea stadium experience an even more distant memory. Make them ahead of time or, in case you have no interest in actually following the game, sneak off to the kitchen at half-time and have one by yourself with the cheers of the crowd playing in the background.
Tastes Like Team Spirit Chocolate Pretzels
Adapted from Everyday Food, March 2010
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Ingredients-Sweet Pretzel Dough
2 packets (1/4 ounce each) active dry yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for bowl and brushing
2 teaspoons coarse salt
4 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled), plus additional flour for sprinkling

Directions-Sweet Pretzel Dough
Pour about a Tablespoon of olive oil into a large bowl and using some paper towel wipe the entire inside of bowl with oil. Set aside.

Measure 1 1/2 cups warm water into another large bowl; pour packets of yeast on top of water and let stand until cloudy/foamy, 5 minutes or so.
Whisk sugar, oil, and salt into yeasty water mixture.
Add the four cups of flour and stir until a sticky dough forms. Transfer dough to the oiled bowl and brush top of dough with oil.
Cover bowl with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draft-free place until dough has doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and gently knead 1 or 2 times.
Cut dough in half. Wrap one half in plastic, put into a ziploc-y bag and freeze for future use. (I have a recipe in mind so don't worry, it won't go to waste.) Each half will weigh one pound.

Ingredients-Chocolate Pretzels
1/2 recipe (1 pound) Sweet Pretzel Dough OR 1 pound of store bought pizza dough at room temperature (assuming you just can't deal with the above)
All-purpose flour to sprinkle on work surface
1/2 cup chopped chocolate
olive oil, for bowl and baking sheet
3 tablespoons baking soda
2 tablespoons coarse sugar

Directions-Chocolate Pretzels
Place dough on a lightly floured work surface; sprinkle with the chocolate and gently knead to incorporate.
Transfer to an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest 1 hour.

Divide dough into 8 equal pieces.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll each piece into an 18-inch-long rope.
Note: The dough may resist being rolled to this length all at once. So, roll it as long as you can, let it sit for a few minutes and try again. It will gradually become more cooperative
To shape dough into pretzels, form each dough rope into a U-shape and twist ends twice. Fold twisted end down and pinch to secure.
Transfer pretzels to an oiled baking sheet and let rest 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add baking soda. And in batches, boil pretzels until puffed and slightly shiny, about 1 minute. With a slotted spoon, transfer to a wire rack to drain.
Line baking sheet with parchment and return pretzels to sheet; sprinkle with sugar.
Bake until golden brown and cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes, rotating sheet halfway through.
Yield: 8 pretzels


Staying Put Salted Caramel Cookie Squares

I have incredible hearing and it is often a burden. Sometimes I think it’s due to my poor vision (thank you botched LASIK surgery): one sense is weak so the other has to compensate. The other day I was coming out of the park when I overheard a pedi-cab peddling tour guide misinform his seated tourists. Pointing to a building that once housed Conan O’Brien he said in his thick Eastern-European accent, “That is where the Michael Douglas lives with the Catherine Zeta-Jones.” I wanted to yank those glassy eyed out-of-towners off the little padded bike bench and scream, “Don’t listen to him! He’s lying!” (He was off by five blocks) And then yell at him for taking advantage of them. But then I thought the better of it and kept walking. It’s not my fault these people were so lazy they couldn’t walk around the park with each other and a map and instead forked over $40 each to be fed hogwash by a shyster. Also, I could never treat a human being like a beast of burden. Who lets someone else huff and puff on their behalf while they just sit on their duffs? I would have made a terrible Cleopatra.
A similar thing happened the other day. I was on the subway platform when I heard one fanny-packed woman say to another, “We’re just going to take the Red Line uptown to Times Square. That’s where all the stores are.” First of all we were all in the 66th Street subway station and Times Square is down, not up. Also, New Yorkers don’t refer to their trains by color. Rather, we use numbers and letters as in, “I jumped on the 2 and switched to the R.” I wanted to take her aside for a tutorial. Again I held my tongue. Why do I care and why is it my problem that she didn’t do her research? I’m not the Ambassador of the City. Then I realized, I can never move. It has taken me my whole life to absorb all the connotations and nuances of my city. What it means when someone chooses to live in one neighborhood vs. another or take the M104 bus instead of the subway or buy her groceries at Eli’s instead of Whole Foods. Every one of those choices translates into a character, or at least a character trait. If I moved to another city how would I ever catch on or catch up?
Years ago my sister spent a year working in Florence. Despite speaking Italian she said it took her months to get comfortable enough to have a personality. I knew exactly what she meant. When you are so concerned about simply expressing yourself there is no time for subtlety or humor. You just want to be understood on the most basic of levels. That’s how I feel it would be if I moved. What if I relocated to Chicago? How would I know what it means to have brunch in Lincoln Park or be from the North vs. the South Side (by the way, side of what?). Would I remember to say “the L” instead of the “subway?” I feel the same way about DC. And do I say “DC” or “Washington?” Do people from Philadelphia refer to it as “Philly” or is that just for non-Philadelphians? In New York we never shorten Avenue to “Ave” as they do in Boston. “Comm Ave” is fine in Beantown but “Columbus Ave” in the Big Apple? Absolutely not! See, it’s just too hard. I need to stay put.

The other thing is that I don’t drive. Theoretically, if I was able to conquer the lingo and the insiders’ meaning, I suppose I could live in Chicago, Boston, Washington or Philadelphia because they all have great public transportation systems. But I could never transplant to a must-have-car city like LA which is really too bad because growing up I spent a fair amount of time in the City of Angels and I loved it. The best I can do is experience other places in the kitchen. And not just in the obvious make-baklava-and-feel-like-I’m-in-Greece way. I love reading about bakeries in other towns, just to see if there are signature desserts or regional specialties that sound particularly delicious. The July issue of Food & Wine mentioned Zoe Nathan, the chef/owner of the Huckleberry Café in Santa Monica. After reading the menu online I started to wish my friend Jane hadn’t given up her cute apartment in walking distance of the café to move back to New York because then I’d have a place to stay after I jumped on the next flight in order to try everything in the place. Luckily the magazine printed a recipe for one of the Ms. Nathan's most beloved bakery offerings and I was able to close my eyes and pretend to be sitting in the sun, on a perfect LA hair day, sipping a latte and eating a salted caramel square. They are a sublime combination of cookie and confection—deeply sweet, buttery, chewy and salty. The cookie has a Twix-y feeling to it, crumbly and not too sweet. You’ll want to cut really small squares because they are so rich. Or don’t and just be prepared to fall into a sugar coma before you are done.
And on a completely different note, yesterday was the first anniversary of In Sweet Treatment! After 75 (now 76) recipes my kitchen is still tiny and red and only slightly worse for the wear. Thanks for reading and if you haven’t baked any of the treats you’ve read about yet you will have plenty of opportunity—clearly, I’m not going anywhere!

Staying Put Salted Caramel Cookie Squares
From Zoe Nathan, Food & Wine, July 2010
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1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup confectioners' sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large egg white, beaten

2 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 350°. Line a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang on the short sides.
In a large bowl, using a hand-held mixer at low speed, cream the butter. Beat in the confectioners' sugar.
Add the whole eggs and beat until incorporatedthen beat in the flour and salt. Press the pastry into the prepared pan in an even layer, 1/4 inch thick. Freeze until firm, 10 minutes.
Line the pastry with parchment paper and fill with pie weights. Bake for 35 minutes, until just set. Carefully remove the pie weights and parchment. Brush the shell with the egg white and bake for 20 minutes longer, until golden and cooked through. Let cool.
In a saucepan, bring the cream, vanilla bean and seeds to a simmer. Cover; keep warm.
In a large, heavy saucepan, stir the sugar into 1/4 cup of water. Simmer over moderate heat, without stirring, until a deep amber caramel forms, 7 minutes.Remove the caramel from the heat and carefully add the cream. When the bubbling subsides, stir in the butter. Insert a candy thermometer and cook over moderately high heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the caramel reaches 240°, 10 minutes. Discard the vanilla bean and stir in the salt. Pour the caramel over the shell. Refrigerate until firm, 4 hours or overnight; bring to room temperature. Remove the bar from the pan using the parchment overhang; cut into squares.
Yield: 32-64 bars depending on the size of your sweet tooth.